Art Contemplation- In Goya's Greatest Scenes

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Today's art contemplation offering is The Third of May, 1808 by the Spanish painter Fransisco Goya (1746-1828). The scene depicts some of the events and disappointments of the modern revolutionary age. H.W. Janson, in History of Art, writes this about the painting:

"When Napoleon's armies occupied Spain, in 1808, Goya and many other Spaniards hoped that the conquerors would bring the liberal reforms so badly needed. The barbaric behavior of the French troops crushed these hopes and generated a popular resistance of equal savagery. Many of Goya's works from 1810 to 1815 reflect this bitter experience...The picture has all the emotional intensity of religious art, but these martyrs are dying for Liberty, not the Kingdom of Heaven. Nor are their executioners the agents of Satan but of political tyranny: a formation of faceless automatons, impervious to their victims' despair and defiance. The same scene was to be reenacted countless times in modern history. With the clairvoyance of genius, Goya created an image that has become a terrifying symbol of our era".



In 1957 the American Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote one of his most well known poems, In Goya's Greatest Scenes, about his own contemplation of Goya's paintings. This is the poem in full below:


                                         In Goya’s Greatest Scenes

         In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see

                                                                            the people of the world
                      exactly at the moment when
                               they first attained the title of
                                                                             "suffering humanity"
                            They writhe upon the page
                                                              in a veritable rage
                                                                                   of adversity
                              Heaped up
                                           groaning with babies and bayonets
                                                                                  under cement skies
                                  in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
                                        bent statues bats wings and beaks
                                                  slippery gibbets
                                       cadavers and carnivorous cocks
                                  and all the final hollering monsters
                                          of the
                                                     "imagination of disaster"
                                they are so bloody real
                                                              it is as if they really still existed


           And they do


                            Only the landscape is changed

        They still are ranged along the roads

                 plagued by legionnaires
                                                 false windmills and demented roosters
        They are the same people
                                                 only further from home
               on freeways fifty lanes wide
                                         on a concrete continent
                                                   spaced with bland billboards
                                    illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness


        The scene shows fewer tumbrils
                                  but more maimed citizens
                                                             in painted cars
                and they have strange license plates
          and engines
                              that devour America 

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 18 December 2010 00:25 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Found another passage on this painting by art historian Sir Kenneth Clark with a similar analysis:

    "The freedoms won by revolution had been immediately lost either by counter-revolution or by the revolutionary government falling into the hands of military dictators. In Goya's picture of a firing squad, called 3 May 1808, the repeated gesture of those who had raised their arms in heroic affirmation becomes the repeated line of the soldiers' muskets as they liquidate a small group of inconvenient citizens. Well, we are used to this all now. We are almost numbed by repeated disappointments. But in 1810 it was a new discovery, and all the poets, philosophers and artists of the Romantic movements were shattered by it" (p.307).

    You can still here the echoes of that disappointment in the words of Ferlinghetti. As the Romantic movement influenced and generated so much of the character of the postmodern mind/zeitgeist, it makes me wonder how much this disappointment, this "shattering" as Clark puts it, is still alive within us today, and how much evolutionary energy is being held back by this kind of (unconscious?)"numbing".

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